Anything is possible in Japan. Want to sip coffee with a hedgehog? Possible. Want to hire a handsome young man to cry with you? Possible. Want to ride a Super Mario Kart around Tokyo dressed as Winnie the Pooh? I am not making this up.
So, the idea of an island built by a billionaire art collector full of polka-dot pumpkins doesn’t really sound out of the question. In 2017 on the advice of many artsy friends, we traveled from Tokyo to Naoshima in the Seto Sea. Part of Kagawa prefecture, the island has warm weather and sandy beaches and an astonishing array of art experiences.
Becoming An Art Island
In the 1980’s Soichiro Fukutake of Benesse Holdings (the owners of Berlitz language schools) bought a huge section of Naoshima island to construct a museum to show off his international art collection.
He hired esteemed architect Tadao Ando to design a place called Benesse House which opened in 1992 and the Chichu Art Museum in 2004.
The rest of the island followed suit by embracing the arts as its new brand. Naoshima and its neighboring islands are now home to the Setouchi Art Triennale which has helped to revitalize the region’s economy.
Getting To Naoshima, Japan
If you are heading straight for Naoshima, it might be best to fly direct to Hiroshima or Kyoto and take the bullet train to Okayama. We took the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo – about 4 hours – but it was heavenly.
The small details in Japanese rail, like the adjustable footrests, plentiful seat pockets, bento box lunches, spotless platforms, and of course, the punctuality, feel like star treatment.
From Okayama station, you can take a local train to Uno Port and then a ferry to Naoshima (just be aware that weekend schedules are less frequent). Japan Wonder Travel has an excellent guide to getting there.
Follow The Polka Dots
The first thing you notice when approaching the island are the polka-dots! Even the ferry is color-coordinated with Naoshima famous gourds – Yayoi Kusama’s red dotted pumpkin, which welcomes you to Miyanoura Port.
An avant-garde sculptor from Nagano prefecture, Kusama’s fame has skyrocketed in recent years due to many museum retrospectives around the world. Side note: I spent three hours in line at the Broad Museum in L.A. to see one of her astounding “infinity rooms”.
Art To Yourself
At the port, you hop on a polka-dotted shuttle that transports tourists to local attractions and to Benesse House. Arriving at the hotel, you notice how subtly the architecture blends with the landscape.
In November, vines of red were creeping across the concrete portal, while behind the building, kinetic sculptures by George Rickey (George Rickey’s Peristyle V 1963-95) dance above a pool that reflects the sea.
When you walk into the lobby, you realize this is more than just a hotel. The smooth, cool concrete walls curve around halls filled with shifting light from a neon work by Bruce Nauman. You’re checking in to a museum!
Open to the public during the day, but it’s your private museum at night, where you can walk among the galleries in your pajamas.
Fukutake’s collection inside Benesse House includes impressive pieces by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Louise Nevelson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yves Klein, and Basquiat to name a few. The surrounding property looking out over the beach beckons you to wander past monumental installations by more artists like Walter de Maria, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Kazuo Katase.
Fuel For Exploration
Before exploring the rest of the island, I was delighted by the vegetarian Japanese breakfast at the Museum Restaurant Issen – opening each delicate dish as if it were my birthday. We spent two days on Naoshima and also loved dinner at the Benesse House Terrace Restaurant – another exquisite meal. While walking through the Honmura district, we saw several cute café options for lunch.
Cafe Konnichiwa looked welcoming – especially with a bohemian merengue band playing on the patio. But we opted for the quieter Cafe Salon Nakaoku with tatami seating and curried comfort food. We also passed up the local cat café called Naoshima (as in meow-shima) which was colorful but closed that day.
The Art House Project
Our next mission was to tour the Art House Project which started in 1998 as a way to revitalize a town that was losing its population as young people moved to big cities. Abandoned houses and buildings were preserved by turning them over to contemporary artists and architects from Japan and beyond.
In functional Japanese fashion, there is a passport system that visitors can use to mark off each art house they visit. Photographs are mostly forbidden to help guard the secrecy of what’s inside.
One site called Minamidera holds artist James Turrell’s piece “Backside of the Moon”, which plays with your perception of light. Get there early to get a timed ticket for entry. Climb the hill to the Go’o Shrine by Hiroshi Sugimoto to see a glass staircase that leads to a tight underground chamber representing the relationship between heaven and earth.
There are seven art house locations which are easy to find due to the docents standing out front. Crowds were minimal, so it was possible to spend time immersing ourselves in the installation and the mellow atmosphere of the town.
CHICHU ART MUSEUM
For one last artful discovery, we rode the polka-dot shuttle to the Chichu Museum, part of the Benesse complex also designed by Tadao Ando. As we approached through the beautiful meandering garden, we were greeted by another polite docent who told us photography wasn’t allowed indoors.
From the air, the museum disappears into the landscape, with only a few geometric shapes peeking through the green. Inside, you’re engulfed by austere concrete, hushed voices and staff dressed all in white.
The collection consists of large immersive works by Walter de Maria and James Turrell (think of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video) and a large white cube-room housing four Claude Monet Water-Lily paintings.
You remove your shoes to wear slippers on the pure white tile floors and talking is discouraged. To some, this might seem like an extreme way to view art. But for once, it was nice to feel alone with the work without looking for the perfect selfie-angle.
Although the underpinnings of Naoshima are quaint streets, gentle waves and meditative art experiences – the element of surprise is the most memorable takeaway.
The opportunity to see a giant yellow dotted pumpkin hunched on a pier like it’s waiting for a friend; to skulk past a Robert Rauschenberg on your way to brush your teeth or listen to a Japanese merengue band on an island reminiscent of James Bond’s “Dr. No” – these are the reasons to keep returning to the “art islands” of Japan. I hope you like surprises!
What To Know For Visiting Japan
Citizens of many countries can get a free 90 day entry to visit Japan for tourism.
Be sure to check the official Japanese Immigration Website for the latest information for your specific country.
The currency used in Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY). The current exchange rate is approximately 1 USD to 108 JPY. You can check the latest EUR exchange rate on Google.
While traveling, our number one tip is to use a free Charles Schwab Debit Card which gives unlimited worldwide ATM Fee Refunds and the true exchange rate.
Where To Stay Near Naoshima, Japan
We recommend booking your hotels on Booking.com to get the best rate and many hotels offer free cancellation in case your plans change. A few of our favourites include:
AirBnB is also a great option (and you can save $44 using that link to sign up!).
Best Time To Visit Japan
The best time to visit Japan is during the shoulder seasons of March to May or September to November. These times have the mildest temperatures and will be less crowded than summer.
Best Books About Japan
Read more about Japan before you go! Some of the best books about Japan are:
What Power Adapters Do You Need
Japan uses standard Type A and Type B adapters also commonly used in the USA. However, keep in mind that the voltage is different so be careful with your electronics and bring a voltage converter if necessary.
You can buy a universal adapter that will work in any country and has extra ports for USB cables to charge your phone and other devices.
We also always travel with a portable battery pack which is great to keep your phone charged on long journeys.
Transportation In Japan
- Public Transportation: Japan has extensive public transportation by both bus and train. The high speed trains are particularly good.
- Rental Cars: If you want flexibility, we recommend renting a car at the airport. This provides the easiest way to see certain landmarks, though parking in Tokyo can be expensive.
- Uber: Uber is sometimes available in Japan, though it depends on the area (mostly in Tokyo and Kyoto). However, the rules are constantly changing about Uber in Japan due to the strict permits that are required for drivers to offer rides. Metered taxis are readily available. You can use the popular JapanTaxiApp instead of Uber.
Our top recommended travel insurance companies for Japan are:
- World Nomads: Comprehensive coverage for medical, travel delays, and electronics.
- SafetyWing: Cheaper monthly coverage primarily for medical, starting at $37 for 4 weeks of coverage.
More Articles About Japan
- How To Plan A Trip To Tokyo Disney In 5 Easy Steps
- Naoshima, Japan Will Surprise You
- Why You Should Consider Japan For A Solo Female Trip
- A Guide To Visiting Hakone, Japan
- The Perfect 7 Day Japan Itinerary
- 8 Things To Do In Japan Totally Worth The Hype
- 8 Off The Beaten Path Things To Do In Tokyo, Japan
Have you ever been to Japan? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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We Are Travel Girls Contributor Ann Trinca of AnnTrinca.SmugMug.com
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Louise Dzimian says
Really enjoyed this art story. Went to Tokyo over 30 years ago for only three days, but still have fond memories of what I saw.